New York, you're perfect Don't please don't change a thing
March 16, 2011 8:30 AM   Subscribe

I <3 NYC. History that is. I would like more books.

I love all things New York history. I would (always) like to read more—fiction, non, based-on-reality, whatever.

I'm most interested in the time up to about the 1900s, so bonus points if the book's subject is colonial/industrial revolution/civil war/revolutionary war.

Seriously, anything from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to Delirious New York, and a little Edward Rutherford tossed in for good measure. Read them all, loved them all. I don't think you could find too nerdy or granular a subject for me.

Thank you, my friends!
posted by functionequalsform to Media & Arts (32 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a big fan of Jill Lepore's New York Burning. Edwin Burrows's Gotham is also a great read.

If you'd like more specialized suggestions, MeMail me--I used to do New York history (18th century).
posted by nasreddin at 8:34 AM on March 16, 2011

Tyler Anbinder's Five Points .
posted by liketitanic at 8:34 AM on March 16, 2011

When I asked about 17th century books, a bunch of people recommended City of Dreams, though I haven't read it yet. I recall finding Time and Again to be pleasant enough.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:38 AM on March 16, 2011

Two to start (I'll no doubt think of more) --

If you haven't read Luc Sante's Low Life, do. It's all about the "seedy side" of New York City -- drugs, prostitution, corrupt politicians, hipsters, orphans -- from just after the Civil War through just before World War I. The "Bohemia" chapter in particular was a fun reminder that "weird arty hipsters and the people who are baffled by them" are always with us.

"Plunkitt of Tammany Hall" is in the public domain, and is a series of as-told-to conversations one of Boss Tweed's cronies had with a reporter, in which he is fascinatingly and thoroughly unapologetic about how he used graft to advance his own political interests.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:38 AM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm sure you already know about this, but the Ric Burns documentary New York is awesome. I know it's not a book, but just about every expert interviewed in the series has written a book that sounds fascinating.
posted by hansbrough at 8:42 AM on March 16, 2011

Gangs of New York
posted by empath at 8:51 AM on March 16, 2011

Kevin Baker's Paradise Alley
posted by Ollie at 8:54 AM on March 16, 2011

Oh, and of course, E.B. White's Here Is New York.
posted by Ollie at 8:56 AM on March 16, 2011

My boyfriend loves all things New York History and really enjoyed The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum, partly for that reason. It's a weird section of history, and is obviously a little outside your preferred time period, but we both found it super-interesting. Poison! Prohibition! New York! What could possibly more exciting?
posted by charmedimsure at 8:56 AM on March 16, 2011

Also, Caleb Carr's murder mystery/thriller The Alienist is set very, very firmly in the New York of 1896 and is a good, quick read.
posted by charmedimsure at 9:01 AM on March 16, 2011

I loved The Island at the Center of the World (which it is!) about the Dutch in Manhattan. It's somewhat pop-historical, but includes a ton of new information from recent translations of original Dutch documents. I believe that Edward Rutherford got a lot of his Dutch-New York stuff from the author.
posted by thebazilist at 9:02 AM on March 16, 2011

2nding "Gotham" by Burrows. It's very, very readable.
posted by Melismata at 9:03 AM on March 16, 2011

Up in the Old Hotel, collected stories by Joseph Mitchell.
posted by thejoshu at 9:05 AM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century" is on my shelf, waiting to be read.

"In the New York City of 1912, the area called Satan's Circus was a slice of midtown Manhattan known for numerous saloons, dance halls, and vice. Into this toxic milieu stepped a young police officer, Charles Becker. ... Becker quickly earned a reputation for extreme corruption and brutality. He was accused of orchestrating the murder of a local casino owner, and he was tried and executed for the crime. ... In his chronicle of the crime, the trial, and the city, Dash paints an irresistible tableau that both fascinates and repels. This is a juicy but ultimately tragic tale that effectively captures a bygone era of a great city."
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:19 AM on March 16, 2011

Seconding "Low Life," which is almost certainly one of the best and most entertaining books on New York City ever. I'd also highly recommend the Encyclopedia of New York City.
posted by saladin at 9:22 AM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale is a gorgeous magical-realist novel of 19th C. New York, with some upper class aspects and some "Gangs of New York" aspects.
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 9:44 AM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

At the tail end of that era is The Alienist. It's a novel, a crime procedural set in an era where forensic analysis and psychiatric profiling were just starting to emerge. Aside from being a generally absorbing read, it evokes NYC of that era particularly well- numerous contemporary historical figures show up, and there are great passages describing dinner at Delmonico's.

From a slightly later era, but certainly harkening earlier, is Berenice Abbott's photography. Her "Changing New York" collection is a great document of the city in the 1930's- neighborhoods that were disappearing and the huge buildings that were taking her place. The NYPL has many of these works in their collection, but a beautiful coffee table book of selected pieces is for sale.
posted by mkultra at 9:46 AM on March 16, 2011

Forgotten Patriots by Edwin G. Burrows has heartbreaking detail about American Revolutionary POWs held by the British in New York City.
posted by jgirl at 10:01 AM on March 16, 2011

Oh man. Thank you so much. My 2011 reading list is well on its way! My IRL friends may never see me again. :D
posted by functionequalsform at 10:12 AM on March 16, 2011

George Chauncey's Gay New York is one of the best LGBT history books ever.
posted by kuppajava at 10:12 AM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

American Rose is not only a fascinating biography of Gypsy Rose Lee, it chronicles the the trials and tribulations of the city's budding burlesque industry throughout the 20th century. Lots of dirty details.
posted by hermitosis at 10:22 AM on March 16, 2011

It is still sitting unread on my coffee table but the recently published Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America has gotten good reviews.
posted by plastic_animals at 10:27 AM on March 16, 2011

Hm, this is post 1900, but I think Robert Moses is one of the most interesting people in American politics: The Power Broker
posted by teabag at 10:45 AM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Might try Mannahatta for a pre-colonial natural history.
posted by one_bean at 11:41 AM on March 16, 2011

Seconding The Alienist and The Poisoner's Handbook, and if you like them, try The Devil's Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial That Ushered in the Twentieth Century, a true-crime story about a murder in NYC in the 1890s.
posted by immlass at 1:37 PM on March 16, 2011

Seconding the Power Broker and Low Life. Between those two books, you'll get a good feel for what about NYC is eternal, and how it became the city it is today.
posted by Afroblanco at 2:57 PM on March 16, 2011

The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York by Matthew Goodman. The story is fascinating and it give a really great image of 1830's New York.
posted by Hactar at 6:18 PM on March 16, 2011

Forgotten New York by Kevin Walsh is really an amazing book. It's part history book and part guide book. It's extremely well researched. What makes it unique, is it points out little bits of old NYC history (like a certain old type of lamp post, a street sign, a building) that you can go visit today, and then relates the history of that place or object. It's shocking how many extremely old bits and pieces have survived the modernization of the city.

Weird New York
by Chris Gethard is an amusing, and at time laugh out loud anectdotal travel guide to the super odd sites of NY. It has entries on everything from graveyards and hot dog stands, to flea circuses and abandoned mental hospitals. It actually covers all of NY state, not just the city. It's a really fun read.

The AIA Guide to New York City is the definitive and classic guide to the building in all 5 boroughs. It gives a building by building description of any structure with even the tiniest noteworthy detail. The authors, White and Willensky have definite attitudes and opinions, which make this many times more interesting than your average guide book. It's also organized by neighborhood, and into self-guided exploration you can do your self. It isn't cheap, but I've owned a copy for 10 years and wouldn't trade it for anything.
posted by EvilPRGuy at 7:38 PM on March 16, 2011

Seconding the Alienist and Low Life. But Time and Again is the quintessential answer to this question. A weird cult book you will always remember. And you will never look at the UWS the same way again.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:54 PM on March 16, 2011

The Big Oyster is a great book with an interesting perspective on NYC history.
posted by soy_renfield at 12:26 AM on March 17, 2011

One last one that I forgot until I recommended it to someone else today: The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder by Daniel Stashower. 1840s murder investigation, and it's pretty absorbing.

I swear I don't just read books about murders/poisonings. Really. Truly.
posted by charmedimsure at 5:12 PM on April 5, 2011

Seconding Joseph Mitchell. Not only did he do an amazing job chronicling the end of old New York first-hand, but he is a legend of New York himself, spending the last forty years of his life going every day in his suit to his desk at the New Yorker and writing absolutely nothing.
posted by pynchonesque at 10:24 AM on July 12, 2011

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